Literature in Times of Turmoil

It is a sad paradox, but perhaps not surprising, that some of humanity’s greatest writing has been born in times of turmoil. In an effort to make sense of painful encounters with death and loss, authors have always tried to turn their sorrow and confusion into enduring monuments of beauty among the ruins, masterpieces that stubbornly surface in the wake of natural and man-made catastrophes, wars, civil strife, revolutions and political and economic upheaval.

Will it be so in our own times of pandemic, suffering and grief?

Though the exact contours of tomorrow’s literature cannot be foretold, some of the ways in which men and women from previous centuries confronted their own calamities might help us understand how we are to meet the challenges of our day. Two major experiences from the past anticipate what may inspire those who attempt literary responses to this current emergency. One is the experience of exile; the other, the contrasting experience of confinement.

We would do well to learn from writers who were banished from their birth lands or who abandoned them to search abroad for opportunities and perspectives unavailable back home. Just to name a select few, take the achievements of Dante, Voltaire, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Marguerite Yourcenar, Ernest Hemingway, Mahmoud Darwish, Doris Lessing, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein and Marina Tsvetaeva; or contemporaries Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Assia Djebar and Gao Xingjian, to which I must add an array from my native Latin America, a continent that has known itself through the looking-glass that wandering artists such as Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortázar, Elena Poniatowska, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa have held up to its readers.

What joins all these dissimilar figures, from unrelated nations and epochs, is how they transformed the curse of distance into a blessing, the need to see the world afresh. It is a lesson to be celebrated by those who wish to express what the pandemic has wrought as they sift through a landscape turned ferociously upside-down and inside-out. Today’s writers also find the world suddenly unrecognizable, exiles themselves from the tidy rituals of previous existence. That uprooting of customs and assumptions is akin to the loss of everyday familiarity that displaced writers have perpetually used to create something breathtakingly new and distinct. Men and women from across the globe who at this very moment are thinking of how to wield the written word as an answer to the frightening uncertainty of events inflicted upon them and their fellow humans, might therefore be encouraged and reassured by the knowledge that the paths ahead of them have already been walked by their exiled brothers and sisters from the past.

It is true that those exiles were nurtured by an incessant movement away from home, whereas contemporary authors are, for the most part, prevented from traveling, forced by the pandemic to an asphyxiating confinement. How to imitate the example of dislocated writers who used new horizons to create new works of art, if we are condemned to inhabit a small, circumscribed space? Or can that restriction also lead to creativity and growth? If we feel trapped and constrained, can we not also be spurred on by other authors who have explored portals to alternative worlds of the mind in circumstances far more dire than ours?

Some of the most moving testimonies to the human condition have been produced by writers in jail. Rather than lapsing into a state of utter desolation — though there were reasons enough for despair — they survived those nights of terror and captivity by plunging deeper into the darkness and dawn of themselves, penning words that still move us to tears. My own favorites, in a list that could be considerably longer, are Boethius, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Breyten Breytenbach, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nawal El Saadawi, Antonio Gramsci, Malcolm X, the Marquis of Sade and Ezra Pound. Obviously, to be in today’s lockdown or self-isolation, with groceries delivered regularly and the Internet at our fingertips, is a far cry from the prolonged detention and cruelty that those imprisoned people, dreading the whip and the wardens, were subjected to. Even so, those writers serve as examples of how enforced solitude and extreme limitations to our right to roam freely can lead to self-discovery instead of paralysis, making sure each precious word wrested from silence has been earned and refined, polished like a stone by a river, over and over again until it is near perfection.

As to what kinds of fiction, poetry, memoirs, theater and essays might spill forth from this unwanted quarantine, many will feel the need to respond to the urgency and desolation of the moment. No doubt we can expect a series of reactions to the plague and the agony it has entailed, as well as hymns to those who have heroically resisted its assault on our dignity and sacrificed so much to keep us safe.

And yet, let me invoke Miguel de Cervantes who, for six long months, was unjustly incarcerated in Seville at the end of the 16th century. It was there that he began to write his groundbreaking “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” a process I have conjured up in my own recent novel “Cautivos.” Who could have forecast, at that bewildering, perilous time, that the most transcendent contribution to world letters — arguably the most influential novel in history — would not be what was popular in those days? Not books of chivalry or novels dealing with pastoral swoonings and picaresque adventures, but this unforeseen fictional character, “begotten in a prison where every discomfort has its place and every mournful sound makes its home,” would radically change literature forever.

That is why I have faith that in this age of multiple confinements, of mournful sounds and every discomfort, there is someone — and more than one person — who is elaborating right now a vision of life that will help us to imagine who we are and who we may yet become in these times of pandemic, injustice and hope.

This essay first appeared in the Washington Post.